Henri Bataille

H.L Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun/November 16, 1910

Mrs. Patrick Campbell, the English woman who first made the American public acquainted with Hermann Sudermann’s “Heimat” (Magda) and “Es lebe das Leben” (The Joy of Life) and Maurice Maeterlinck’s “Peleas et Melisande,” not to mention Arthur Wing Pinero’s “The Second Mrs. Tanqueray” and “The Notorious Mrs. Ebbsmith,” has recently returned to this country to prepare for a production of Henri Bataille’s “La Vierge Folle” (The Foolish Virgin), which made a great sensation when it was first presented at the Renaissance Theatre in Paris last February and is still drawing large audiences to that house.

Flapdoodle vs. Ideas

Bataille is one of the contemporary French dramatists of whom Americans know too little. The new plays of Henry Bernstein, Alexandre Bisson and other such merchants of thrills and smoking-room wit are promptly clawed out of French and set before us, just as the roaring melodramas of Victorian Sardon used to be set before us 15 or 20 years ago, but the serious dramas of Paul Hervieu, Eugene Brieux and Henri Bataille, men of ideas all, are seldom done into English. Of Hervieu’s plays, for example, the only one so far familiar to Americans is “Connai Toi” (Know Thyself), which Arnold Daly presented last year—to empty seats and blank faces. Of the plays of Brieux not one has yet had an adequate presentation in America. Of Bataille’s work the same tale there is to tell.

“The Foolish Virgin,” no doubt, will duly shock us, just as “Man and Superman” shocked us, for its underlying thesis, like that of the Shaw comedy, is a denial of one of our favorite articles of faith—the doctrine, to wit, that in all cases of scandal affecting a man and a woman the man is a soulless scoundrel and the woman his helpless victim. Monsieur Bataille presumes to dissent. He seems to be convinced that in matter of scandal, as in matters of business, it takes two to make a bargain, and that the guilt of the one is commonly of just as much horsepower as the guilt of the other. But this is not the only nor even, perhaps, the principal idea in “La Vierge Folle,” and so we had better take a glance at the story of the play.

Fanny To The Rescue

The foolish virgin of the title is Diane, the 18-year-old daughter of the Duc de Charance, a decayed aristocrat. Diane has gone wrong with a married man, one Marcel Armaury, and her father and mother are making great efforts to keep the fact secret. They take counsel of the Abbe Roux, a shrewd old priest, and he recommends that Diane be sent off to a nunnery. The girl professes to consent to this arrangement, but at the moment of departure she escapes and joins Armaury, and the two prepare to flee to England. Then, by accident, Diane’s brother, Gaston, and Armaury’s wife, Fanny, learn of the affair, and the two at once set out in pursuit of the fugitives, Gaston to avenge the wrong done his sister and Fanny to protect her husband!

Fact! The injured wife, instead of bawling for the police and demanding her recreant partner’s blood, actually sympathizes with him! When Gaston arrives, hot on his trail, Fanny by a ruse sends the bloodthirsty young man galloping off in the wrong direction, and thus helps the runaways to escape to England. Strange! Strange! Such things do not happen—on the stage. But they do happen, says Bataille, in real life—and before the second act is over he half convinces us that he is right. Fanny is not the conventional injured wife of sentimental drama, but an intelligent, sympathetic, far-seeing woman. She loves her husband and what is vastly more important she understands him. Face to face with the facts, she seems to divine just how much he is to blame for the elopement and just how much the kittenish, appealing little Diane is to blame. Alone among the personages of the play she accurately estimates the situation and calculates its consequences.

The Solution By Divorce

The scene changes to England. Armaury and Diane have landed there safely, and the rest of the characters follow. The Charances are for an immediate divorce and Armaury’s marriage to Diane. It is only thus, they argue, that the honor of the girl may be preserved. Fanny must begin suit at once. By all means, let us have this unpleasant business over as quickly as possible! But Fanny unexpectedly refuses. In a scene marked by great dramatic intensity she defiles the Charances and tells them some plain truths. “A man,” she says, “does not carry off a girl without her consent.” Her duty as she sees it is not to Diane, but to her husband. She must save him from the ruin he faces. She indulges in no recriminations, no fine frenzies, but with fine tenderness she assures the tortured Armaury that she is yet ready to stand by him—“or I, too, know what it means to be unhappy.”

The Charances, of course, are furious, and on the return of the whole party to France Gaston sends Armaury a challenge. When it is refused the young man comes to the apartment occupied by the elopers, determined to kill his sister’s betrayers at sight. Fanny is there before him—and a scene follows which lifted the blasé theatre-goers of Paris to their feet. When Gaston rushes upon Armaury, revolver in hand, the women throw themselves between the two men, and each in her own way seeks to turn Gaston from his murderous purpose. Diane, by dint of pleading and wheedling, induces him to throw down his revolver. Fanny, more quietly, tries to show him the folly of any interference in the situation. The scene begins as a battle for Armaury’s life: it ends as a battle for the man himself. Fanny, the true wife, the noble, self-sacrificing woman, slowly but surely dwarfs the shallow Diane. Armaury himself does not seem to yield. Shaken by his wife’s serene goodness, he still swears that he will not desert Diane; who needs him most. But Diane herself sees the handwriting on the wall. Contrasting herself with Fanny, she suddenly realizes that in the long run; she must lose. And so, in despair, she seizes Gaston’s revolver and kills herself.

Thus crudely described the play seems to show a fatal defect. That is to say, Armaury appears as a mere stick, and Fanny’s sacrifices for him fail, perhaps, to be impressive. But if the London reviews of the play are to be believed, Bataille actually succeeds in making Armaury so real that the spectator never once questions the plausibility of the fable. The dramatist is trying to set before us a man overcome by the appeal of apparent innocence, the lure of youth –a man who in the last analysis is neither stupid nor vicious but merely weak—and the pictures is drawn with such sure strokes that it makes the spectator see Armaury as Fanny sees him and so justifies his sacrifice and glorifies her victory.

(Source: University of North Texas, Microfilm Collection)

The works of H.L. Mencken and other American journalists are now freely available at The Archive of American Journalism.